People diagnosed with an autism disorder are increasingly in demand among employers seeking a competitive advantage from workers more used to being considered disabled than special.
Recruiters are waking up to the similarities between the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer and those of Asperger syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism: an all-absorbing interest in a single topic, a passion for numbers and patterns, and an addiction to repetitive tasks.
“Many people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have an affinity for software testing, application development, programming and back-office work,” Thomas van der Stad, CEO of Specialisterne Switzerland, told swissinfo.ch.
“In IT, one thinks very much in terms of yes and no. It’s very analytical, it’s clearly structured and that’s very good for autistic people.”
“Not fitting in is a good thing,” is the view of Specialisterne Switzerland, founded in October 2011 as a licensee of the Specialist People Foundation Denmark, which aims to create one million jobs for people with autism.
“The traits that usually exclude people with autism from the labour market are the very traits that make them valuable employees,” it believes.
Van der Stad explains how at Specialisterne people with autism work in a personalised, structured environment that enables them to maximise their talents and produce top-quality work, without causing them unwanted stress.
“They don’t have to learn to adapt to the usual working-environment norms, such as being a good team player, being empathetic, handling stress well and showing flexibility.”
More and more companies are coming round to the idea of using the untapped potential of people with an autistic disorder.
In May, German computer software giant SAP launched a recruitment drive to attract people with autism to join it as software testers. A week later, United States home financing firm Freddie Mac advertised a second round of paid internships aimed specifically at autistic students or new graduates.
The multinationals both say they hope to harness the unique talents of autistic people as well as giving people previously marginalised in the workforce a chance to flourish in a job.
SAP aims to employ 650 autistic workers, or one per cent of its workforce, by 2020.
“Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century,” said SAP’s board member for human resources, Luisa Delgado, as she announced the plan.
Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists”, is a social enterprise where the majority of employees have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.
It was founded in October 2004 by Thorkil Sonne, a Danish IT manager whose son was diagnosed with autism at the age of two-and-a-half in 1999. Specialisterne Switzerland was founded in 2011.
Employees work as business consultants on tasks such as software testing, application development, programming and data-entry for the public and private sectors.
The Specialist People Foundation owns Specialisterne Denmark and the Specialisterne concept and trademark. The foundation aims to create one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a change in attitudes.end of infobox
“In the past two weeks [following the SAP news] we’ve had many enquiries from customers asking what we can do for them,” said Van der Stad, who like most of the management team at Specialisterne is ‘neurotypical’, a term used by many autistic people to refer to those not on the autistic spectrum.
An exception is Gerhard Gaudard, the company’s IT project manager, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome two years ago.
“One of the major skills autistic people have is extremely high concentration on a task. We can be focused for hours; we can forget time. We do not care about our environment,” Gaudard, who works eight hours a day, four days a week, told swissinfo.ch (see the related story for an extended interview).
“Also, some of us can think extremely fast and in different ways from neurotypical people. We can find solutions which normal people would never find. But – but – only if the environment fits. If it doesn’t, we’re not able to do this extreme work.”
Van der Stad stresses this point. “Personal support and structure is very important. Communication and dialogue with autistic people has to be very structured,” he said.
“What’s more, this structure varies. We can’t say every person with Asperger’s needs this or that type of communication. We treat everyone individually and see what they need. Some don’t say a word, others talk a lot more – we find the best way of giving them the right support so they can work to their potential.”
Autistic spectrum disorders
Autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs), including Asperger’s syndrome, are thought to affect around one per cent of the population worldwide.
In Switzerland, some 50,000 people live with an ASD, according to Autism Switzerland. Of those, around 10,000 are children or teenagers. It points out that recent research had shown that 0.7 per cent of all children have an autistic disorder.
ASDs are almost five times more common among boys (1 in 54) than girls (1 in 252), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disorders are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors and can range from severe mental retardation with a profound inability to communicate, to relatively mild symptoms combined with some high levels of function such as those seen in people with Asperger’s.
Among the core features of autism are poor communication skills and social difficulties. In high-functioning autism, features such as intense or obsessive focus and unwavering attention to detail are also common.
These latter qualities, experts say, as well an ability to approach an issue in a different way – often a creative or counterintuitive one – make autistic people potentially attractive as employees in large corporations.end of infobox
Nevertheless, Van der Stad says that when it comes to integrating people with ASDs in the workplace, “Switzerland is not a pioneering country”.
“Not many people with an autism disorder are integrated into the labour market,” he says, although exact figures do not exist.
As Zurich-based Ray Pierce, co-founder of the autism support group ABA Parents Association, points out, “there’s another 75 per cent or more who have autism but no special talent in IT”.
Pierce’s 19-year-old son was fortunate to find work as a gardener in a semi-sheltered workplace run by a special foundation. When he finished school he had a careers advisory meeting with social services and was told about possible apprenticeship programmes. However, Pierce says his family was lucky, he knows others who are struggling to find something on their own as special apprenticeship programmes are “very full”.
“There is no other support. Parents have to be very strong advocates for their children.”
Pierce would like to see more emphasis on finding new employers who have work that is a good fit for autistic people. “It’s worth investing in. If a young person does find something that suits them, it reduces the level of financial support needed for a lifetime.”
The Specialisterne Switzerland, offering a four-year vocational IT course for people diagnosed with an ASD, may be a good model, although it naturally is not the only such organisation in Switzerland. “Our goal is to bring 50 or 60 people into the labour market over the next four or five years,” Van der Stad says.
The course combines theory and on-the-job training and participants will receive a Federal Diploma of Proficiency. It starts in August and will be paid for by government invalidity insurance.